Quitting Facebook is pointless?

Over at apophenia, danah boyd writes that quitting facebook is pointless and what is actually needed is for us to challenge facebook to be more responsive.

I find this rhetoric profoundly disempowering. Social movements and social pressure doesn’t happen only from everyone marching to the beat of one drum. I’m sure more moderate feminists told radical lesbian separatists that their actions were pointless too but the movement needed all these different ways of acting to build the solidarities and arguments that it did.

I think danah might be reacting to tech elites who are presuming that because they quit, they will be taste leaders. I think that is crap. However, calling quitting pointless misses that quitting isn’t just about affecting Facebook. Decentering Facebook, we might recognize that:
1) Quitting actually creates time and occasion for other modes of sociality. Making those other forms, in some cases by going back to straight up talking on the phone and in others, playing and experimenting (as my lab did by making LUCIbook with whiteboards). Quitting, then, is an opening to a set of experiments. But you don’t *have* to quit to experiment.
2) If quitting is meaningful and feels good to some people, why deny them that? Why slam it and call it pointless? Why use a position of authority as a prominent blogger to foreclose options?
3) Quitting (and switching, perhaps) seems, to me, a better alternative than hoping FB gets its act together, changes its corporate culture, and starts actually being responsible and responsive. It doesn’t even have to be an anti-corporate mobilization. Frankly, compared to Facebook, Google and Twitter are amazing at being responsive and simple to understand, and they are right there right now, ready to use. This doesn’t have to be about corporate purity, as I noted in my last post about platform pluralism.

The role of feminist argument ought to be deepening our analysis of complex power relations, open-ended possibilities, and agencies springing up in unusual places. It should not be making foreclosing claims about alternate social practices, whether that’s quitting facebook or staying on it.

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7 Responses
  1. Lisa nakamura says:

    Lilly: I really thought seriously about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to quit facebook! I had some really gratifying high school meet ups recently and it seemed wrong. The closest I could come was to decouple twitter from my fb feed, and to use twitter more than I used to. I just gave a paper at the Berkman Center on twitter and hate speech on conference backchannels, so clearly the new focus on twitter is finding its way into my research.

  2. lilly says:

    Zinc, yeah, the facebook creep is also at UCI. Pasted below is an exchange between me and a school of humanities communications manager. I had responded to her announcement that UCI Humanities would be updating on their facebook group, pasted below. The communications people don’t see their role in reinscribing the dominance of this infrastructure — or maybe they just don’t care?

    Hi there –

    I’m excited to hear about the humanities having an online presence. However, I know several people among faculty and graduate students who have quit facebook because of the company’s privacy behavior. Must the presence be on facebook? Why not twitter? That company has been far more ethical in their behavior towards users.

    ICS, Grad Feminist Emphasis

    —her response—–
    Hi Lilly,
    Thank you for your interest in the School of Humanities having a presence on different social networking sites. While Twitter may be in the school’s future, at the present time we’re going to be using Facebook, as it allows us to easily provide a wealth of information to our targeted audiences, which in addition to students and faculty also includes Humanities alumni.

    xxxxxxname omittedxxxx

    ——my response—-
    Well, school of ICS uses Twitter so if you need tips on tweeting well, you can get in touch with them. Twitter is an open platform that provides RSS feeds that let anyone subscribe to the feed regardless of whether they use Twitter specifically. Facebook requires people to have accounts to see the feed. If you want to have a more public face for the school, Twitter is the way to go.
    that was the last I heard from her.

  3. Zinc says:

    Lilly, I love your analysis of social movements and the importance of mediating multiple positions, even those considered too radical and pointless by more “withinthesystem” actors. And I too find creepy and annoying the ways in which it’s becoming more and more difficult to manage the privacy settings on fb. My temporary, adhoc response (that could easily morph into the “i quit” position: I ignore facebook for 80% of the year, concentrate on other forms of sociality that enrich my life and work. (This doesnt address the privacy problem, just the sociality one). I find fb useful only for finding people who would otherwise be entirely lost to those of us who travelled away from other homes and lives. Nevertheless, I am still faced, every week, by professionals friending me for their networks and so on – something i have little patience with. I give a lot of time to my work – I don’t like having my co-workers hang out in parts of my life which are not already sold to my employer (feminists have long critiqued the infinite expansion of work into life). Recently, a friend in Canada mentioned that her department is making it strongly recommended/ required for faculty to have facebook pages, advertise their universities, and friend their students. Now that pisses me off – I would join the Quit Revolution right away.

  4. Andrew Lau says:

    I’ve quit Facebook a couple of times before, and I’ve returned a couple of times. Currently, I’m still on it, and to be honest, I find that being on it helps in at least two regards: first, it makes it easier to stay in contact with friends who live on the other side of the world, and second, participating helps me understand it in a way that I can use it in the class that I teach at the community college on social media, information, and society. Particularly for the latter, it makes sense because of course, privacy is the dominant issue that seems to emerge when talking about Facebook and its proliferation in the social lives of young people.

    But of course, that doesn’t touch upon the very real ethical implications that you touch on, Lilly, particularly the increasing opacity of Facebook’s privacy policies. While I recognize boyd’s argument for keeping on with Facebook with motivations to make them more responsive, that position does little to decenter it, as you rightly point out. But I wonder if there’s emancipatory potential from both ends, in quitting it altogether, and in working from the “inside” to build critical position. I tend to think that there’s merit in both, and that the task of critical thinkers is to question what so many take for granted (i.e., the fatalist position that we as general publics can only do what are built into technologies) and disseminate these insights.

    Perhaps a personal anecdote might illustrate this better. With this class that I’m teaching at the community college, there is a service-learning component built in to the structure of the class. As such, the students are partnered with four different community-based organizations, and their primary tasks are to work with these organizations to leverage social media channels in ways that benefit the organizations in their specific missions. Having taught this class twice this year, the general consensus among the students has been that Facebook and Twitter are the most effective arenas for this work, particularly for outreach and coalition building between organizations that have similar commitments. And of course, I spend quite a bit of time in the class discussing privacy issues, calling attention to specific caveats that the students, acting on behalf of the organizations, might encounter. But in the end, throughout all of our discussions, the students believe that Facebook and all of its capabilities are the most effective means to build a web presence for the organizations, most of which have out-of-date websites and operate on organizational models that treat the internet as an afterthought. And to be sure, these organizations are all small operations; few, if any, have kept the pace with the growth in the popularity and use of the internet, primarily because they lack the resources and staffing. Given the constraints of the course (8 weeks), there’s the very real issue of needing to be pragmatic about the work that the students can reasonably accomplish in such a short span of time.

    So in this sense, while I’m cognizant of the issues associated with using Facebook as the primary platform for this work, I’ve tried to incorporate critical perspectives into the class discussions. And thankfully, at the end of the course, the students are able to voice their concerns about these issues in our concluding “rap” session. Here, I tend to see this as some indication that I’m doing my job.

    Thanks for starting this thread, Lilly. I’m definitely going to be using this topic for me class in the future.

  5. Ryan Shaw says:

    I wouldn’t equate open source with voluntary surplus labor. A lot of people are paid to work on it. But yeah, open source is not a silver bullet by a long shot.

    I’m glad that Facebook is catching a lot of heat, but I fear that they will become a convenient scapegoat that lets tech elites ignore the larger problems of the tech industry and “social media.” If Facebook disappeared tomorrow we’d still have the same basic problems on our hands.

  6. Lilly says:

    Ryan, yeah, I think you’re right. I think regulation is going to be important and I agree that Google and Twitter aren’t ideal. For me, they’re just not offensive the way facebook is.

    I haven’t decided whether non-commercial is inherently more trustworthy than commercial. It depends, I think, on the way the non-commercial is supported. Having open source stuff that is supported by the voluntary surplus labor of people with wealth and / or time on their hands doesn’t actually assuage my feelings of accountability. You can see the code, but you can’t necessarily make the hackers care about your needs. Something supported by public funds or some sort of large, crowdfunded endowment that provides for maintenance costs and salaries in exchange for due processes and accountability gets more interesting to me.

    This is all provisional of course. Thanks for thinking about this with me.

  7. Ryan Shaw says:

    At this point I’m still on Facebook solely because it is a decent place to share baby pics with my family and keep up with what they’re doing. I used to use Flickr for pics, but never could get my family to join. Flickr never really managed to break out of the hipster-nerd / photographer ghetto to penetrate the mainstream. Facebook did, and remains the only service that my friends and family around the world have *all* (well, nearly all) joined. I would love it if the infrastructure existed for me to semi-privately share news and photos with them all outside of Facebook, but it doesn’t, and I don’t see why you think Google and Twitter provide better alternatives. They’re all in the business of building a profile of me and selling it to the highest bidder.

    Which is not to say I agree with Danah—I don’t think Facebook will change and I’m not interested in helping them anyway. I’m glad people are quitting and hope more people do. But I don’t believe that using a competing service will help either; the market isn’t going to provide a solution here. We need regulation to make privacy-eroding business practices illegal and investment in truly public communication software infrastructure. As for the latter, I think the code and tools Google is releasing along with Buzz and Wave are a good start, but more than code and tools we need viable non-commercial institutions to run the servers and present a credible alternative to Google-hosted services. We also need to make sure that the code and tools are truly independent of Google so that the development process isn’t just geared toward what Google needs, and can’t be sabotaged by them if they start posing a competitive threat.